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Fairphone 1 never had a fair fight: Sustainability and smartphones just don’t mix

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A home truth it’s uncomfortable to write: humanity’s love of gadgets is awful for the planet. And mobile phones are some of the worst culprits around, with marketing departments insisting that a handset only has a lifespan of two years before it needs to be replaced. Talk of “recycling” your old phone is designed to placate with green overtones, but bears about as much resemblance to actual recycling as the industrial farming industry does to Old MacDonald had a farm.

Fairphone hoped to change our attitudes with a handset that was, as the name suggests, fair. This didn’t just cover longevity of the device with replacement parts and long-term support – the company wanted to tackle the dubious ethics at every part of the supply chain, from sourcing conflict-free minerals to ensuring better pay and conditions for assembly workers.



While the company may well have made progress on the latter two, the longevity part has fallen by the wayside – at least with the Fairphone 1, which the company this week has chosen to stop supporting, just three-and-a-half years after the first batch was sold. That’s a modest improvement on contract phones (although most handsets will continue to get a similar level of support post contract), but bear in mind that limited production runs means that the phone was sold in three batches: late 2013, May 2014 and February 2015. So while early adopters got three-and-a-half years of use, those that bought in February 2015 did not.

“We’ve simply reached the point where it is no longer possible to keep supporting our first phone,” wrote CEO Bas van Abel in a blog post explaining the decision. The realities of maintaining a supply chain with limited budgets and without bulk purchasing power was taking its toll.

“While we were producing the Fairphone 1, our manufacturing partner Guohong was managing most of the supply chain. After some time, they stopped producing phones altogether and our relationship with them ended,” van Abel continued. “We had to contact the individual spare parts suppliers to ask them to produce extra batches for us. We ordered a certain amount of spare parts based on an estimate of the number of parts we would need in the near future, as well as the financial resources that were available at the time.

“But over the years, due to the fast pace of change in the electronics industry, most of the original Fairphone 1 spare parts have now been retired by our suppliers. In other words, the parts we need no longer exist. We’ve worked continuously to find new suppliers and convince them to keep making the parts – for example, we’ve worked with two different manufacturers to try to keep batteries in stock. However, after exploring every option within our financial means, the minimum orders required to produce new batches of spare parts is beyond what we can afford.”

Reality bites

In other words, Fairphone can only really work well in a world where other companies share its vision, and despite green platitudes, most just don’t. Even if your Fairphone 1 continues to work (albeit slowly), you’re opening yourself up to risks just by using it. The company has been promising an update to Android 4.4 (KitKat) for years, but now work has been ended on that project too. KitKat was released in October 2013 to manufacturers, so not only might newer apps misbehave on KitKat, but there’s potentially years’ worth of security vulnerabilities left open. True, mobile security is nowhere near as worrying as desktop, but it does mean that to be slightly kinder to the planet, you’re sacrificing a little of your peace of mind.

That’s a real problem with the Fairphone model: with such a small install base, there’s no incentive for bigger manufacturers to pursue sustainable models that deliberately eat into profits. And without bigger manufacturers taking an interest, the ability for Fairphone to keep up is distinctly hampered too – not just in terms of spare parts, but in software that continues to work with the hardware. Fairphone 2 is more future-proof than Fairphone 1, since it’s modular and allows the replacement of every part aside from the CPU, but there will come a time when that Snapdragon 801 CPU proves a bottleneck. You can’t unilaterally hold back progress.

Fairphone promises that its second handset will have support for five years; we’ll see. Extended support costs a lot of money – especially when you’re working against the tide of what the richer software designers intended. Ironically, the Samsungs and Apples of this world are more capable of providing the kind of long-term support that Fairphone aims for – it’s just not part of their business model to do so. Fairphone, on the other hand, is actively seeking new sources of funding outside of its conscientious buyers.

Fairphone’s ambitions are admirable, and I hope the company stays the course, but ending support for its first ever handset so soon has sapped a lot of goodwill from its buyers. “I am very disappointed that you do not support Fairphone 1 any more,” writes one commenter. “This clearly conflicts with the information you gave when I bought the Phone. In this aspect, I do not see any difference with the bad practices of other phone manufacturers.”

Being compared to regular profit-driven companies? That’s gotta hurt.

Images: Sandra Fauconnier and Kaihsu Tai used under Creative Commons

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